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Will Autonomous Vehicles Bring Everyone along for the Ride?

Mobility is essential for taking an active part in society. For the millions of people around the world that have transportation-inhibiting disabilities the radical change that autonomous vehicles promise to bring raises a serious question: will accessibility be prioritized? AVs could open possibilities for those with mobility challenges, but for them to do so steps need to be put in place now. Concerningly, early regulation for AVs have not prioritized accessibility. For example, in October 2020 the California Public Utilities Commission did not include any accessibility requirements in regulations that allowed AV operators to charge fares for trips.[1]

These concerns have become more important now as the push for commercially available AVs picks up pace. Development in self-driving has not been without problems, but it appears things are now moving forward. There have also been positive signs in regulation. The US Department of Transportation has put out an Inclusive Design Challenge that will award $5 million to innovators in this space. This is a good sign. As Blumenthal, from RAND Corp, put it “Improvements in access are not going to happen automatically.”[1]

Two car companies have previously been hailed for their outreach to people with mobility challenges: Toyota and VW. An example is Toyota’s offering early access to the 2021 Sienna minivan to mobility manufacturers. The challenges that face AV developers are beyond offering early access to third-party manufactures. The project Guidance for journeys with highly automated vehicles, currently being conducted at RISE and funded by Drive Sweden addresses some of these challenges (video). AVs do not have drivers, but drivers do a lot more than merely drive the taxi, bus, or shuttle. A passenger with mobility challenges, such as blindness or a wheelchair may need extra support, time to board, or disembark. Navigating to, from, and on the vehicle can be challenging, and AV manufacturers, designers, and developers have not addressed these needs. 

 

Personal comment

The automobile industry is increasingly becoming about the software, and nothing shows that more than the challenge of autonomous driving. This makes accessibility more challenging, but also potentially better in the long run. A traditional bus with a driver can be made accessible through physical alterations, such as adding a ramp and space for wheelchairs. Autonomous vehicles have these same physical challenges, but also have a layer of software to deal with. As vehicles become more controllable via software they will, potentially, be able to adjust more specifically to the needs of those who have disabilities. For this to happen accessibility must be prioritized and taken into consideration as early as possible in the design processes for both physical vehicles and the software that will control them.

 

Written by Joshua Bronson, RISE.

 

Sources

1. 2020-12-07 Advocates fear AVs will leave disabled riders behind